EL RENO — Superintendent Greg Winters stood in the torrential rain May 31, peering through the darkness at his tornado-damaged school.
In interviews with national news network crews who'd made the trek over from Moore, which just days before also had been struck by a tornado, Winters offered assurances that the Canadian Valley Technology Center would reopen quickly.
Then the sun came up. And with it, Winters' confidence went down.
The building was almost a complete loss.
“They asked me what we are going to do and how we are going to do it,” he said of reporters who met him that next morning. “At that point, I really had no clue.”
The storm had caused little property damage as it moved east across open farmland toward El Reno, but then had increased in intensity and brought hail and heavy rain. As the tornado crossed over Interstate 40, high winds tossed cars and tractor-trailers like a toddler playing with toys.
The National Weather Service recorded wind speeds of 296 mph, the second-highest measurement ever. 22 people died in the storm, nine from being in the path of the tornado and 13 from resulting flooding.
The storm hit the technology center head on. A wind turbine blade stored on the school grounds was hurled into the building. No one was injured.
Confronted with having to demolish and rebuild, Winters met with his staff to discuss whether they could reopen by the first day of school in August.
Shutting down was not an option. Too many people rely on the center. Those who earn certification in one of the CareerTech's programs can earn starting wages between $16 and $18 per hour, the school boasts.
“Our students depend on us to be here,” Winters said. “There was no way we could let them down.”
Within a week, the staff leased the old John Holt Chevrolet dealership in Yukon to serve as a new main campus. The school's child development center moved to the South Yukon Church of Christ. Other programs found homes across Oklahoma City.
‘A lot of faith'
On Aug. 15, 75 days after it was destroyed, Canadian Valley reopened. All 800 students and faculty returned and all 17 full-time academic programs survived.
“We had a lot of faith and a lot of trust in our people,” Winters said. “It was kind of like, ‘How in the world did we ever get this done?'”
Now, six months later, the school is thriving in its temporary quarters while reconstruction at the original campus continues.
Canadian Valley Technology Center's recovery is indicative of what's going on throughout the city, City Manager Tony Rivera said.
Even before the Federal Emergency Management Agency or Red Cross arrived on the scene, he saw families, neighbors and strangers band together to clean up, cook meals and provide shelter for those who'd lost everything.
“The very next day we began the healing,” Rivera said. “Oklahomans in general are just those types of people that just pick right up. It was unfortunate to have the loss of life, but everyone coming together really shows a powerful unified front.”
El Reno is about to embark on a six-month effort to clear all storm drains and ditches of tornado debris.
The city also is providing tax incentives and building apartments that officials hope will entice people to move out of older homes that Rivera said can't withstand a storm half the size of the May 31 tornado.
“You can't recover lives,” Rivera said. “We are trying to do everything to make sure we are prepared in case something like this happens again.”
In the days after the tornado, Winters felt the odds were against him on getting the technology center reopened on time. In hindsight, he's amazed at how smooth things have gone.
“We didn't have the luxury of making bad decisions,” Winters said.
“Everything we made had to be the right decision. People were counting on us, our community needed us.”